Friday, February 23, 2007

The Crapshoot

It’s a fact of life that here in Italy food is all-important. It is discussed on the streets and in the markets. Travelers return home raving about the sights, but remembering with rapturous joy the meals they consumed here. So it’s no surprise that we join in the spirit and thoroughly make the most of every opportunity to try local dishes and cook with the fresh, locally-grown produce. It was instilled in me early on, anyway; meals were to be savored, something Bryan had to become accustomed to when we first married. For him, it was sustenance, and the quicker it was consumed the better.

In Italy, a meal is long even by my standards, and we have spent two to three hours (or more) a tavola on many occasions, partaking of the different courses, the wines, and the company. It can be a leisurely, pleasant affair.

But we’ve come to discover that sometimes dining can also be a crapshoot. Not that the food is bad, mind you. It’s just that we don’t always know what to expect. This is especially true in smaller seafood restaurants. Our first experience with this phenomenon- which we now refer to as The Seafood Lottery- occurred in Anzio. We had visiting family members and, eager to try the fresh fish procured from the Mediterranean, we headed to a little place tucked away in the corner of a tiny piazza with a sign proclaiming, “Casareccia”-home cooking. Promising.

But when we settled into our table and had ordered the wine, plates started flowing out; trouble was we had not yet ordered. “Uh, scusa ma non abbiamo ancora ordinato,” I said, or something close to that. Uh, we’ve not yet ordered. “Si si,” was the response. Apparently by virtue of sitting down we’d signed the agreement to partake of the whole enchilada, as it were. Seven antipasto, all fish-based arrived unbidden. When we were asked about primi, (the pasta course) the waitress gave us a choice of two, but then recommended we take two portions of each so we can all try them both. Okay. We’re in the thick of things now, why not? Out came two enormous platters heaped with pasta, with generous helpings of fish-based sauces atop. They were both tasty, but filling. We were getting nervous…we had spied a gigantic tray of fish being presented at a neighboring table and realized that the secondi would be too much for us. I called the waitress over and sheepishly tried to explain we were too full, “non possiamo mangiare il secondo piatto” (no way can we eat that big main course). She was a bit miffed, but understanding our foreign-ness, let us off lightly.

But because everything just appeared as if by magic at our table – no menu had arrived bearing prices – the Seafood Lottery became a Price Lotto, too. Fortunately, the feast was rather reasonable, but after this initial introduction we were a bit timid to enter another seafood restaurant for some time.

Recently we were reintroduced to the fish affair in nearby Grottammare, but with the aid of sage friends who know the system as well as the restaurant owner. It was basically a repeat – the large variety of antipasti flowing forth from the cucina until Enzo told him, “abbastanza”. There was only one antipasto type that I wasn’t fond of; the rest were very flavorful. Lesson learned, though: one must tell the chef when to stop. Then the primi – this time a lovely fish ravioli that Bryan dominated, and a spaghetti with a light, buttery sauce infused with tender, flaky fish (I don’t know fish types well in Italiano, yet, I’m afraid.) We really didn’t want a secondo (yet again) but Enzo insisted we had to try the frittura, so a platter of mixed fry – shrimp, calamari, and small, whole fishies lightly floured and fried up nice and tasty. All of this was washed down with a local vino Falerio. And all of it came to about $20 per person, so not a bad deal. But again, a crapshoot. We had no idea what we’d be eating or paying, and were left to the mercy or whims of the chef. Which, we are learning, isn’t a bad thing. The food is almost always delectable and thus far we’ve not been taken for a ride on the prices.

The restaurants we frequent in Ascoli have no written menus, either, but instead an oral menu is recited, and usually it changes daily or weekly. But lack of a formal menu also means lack of advance notice of the prices. Again, a crapshoot when it comes time to pay the bill, but we’ve found them to be fair -even what we’d consider too low- so it all works out for the best…for our tastebuds as well as our wallets.

copyright 2007 Valerie Schneider

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